Fieldwork, Groote Eylandt, NT

Leaving Darwin, the propellers outside hummed loudly (reassuringly). We pressed our noses to the windows, looked out on the wild top coast of Australia. The fires lit by thousands of years of tradition. And then, we were there. Over the mines, into the red dirt.

the GEMCO manganese mine

the GEMCO manganese mine

On the deck with Jennifer and her niece; with Chopper; with MacBook Pro

We drove east to Umbakumba then headed into the bush on sandy tracks. We set up tents on top of a berm, feeling {relatively} safe from water-borne crocs and collected firewood from the beach. We watched a heavy moon pull itself up into the sky.

Picnic Beach, Groote Eylandt | Jaime and Eddie set out, bait, and mark quoll traps

Under Jaime's guidance, we set out traps for quolls, hoping to catch at least a few to obtain measurements and hair samples.

We caught 4. Plus a few bandicoots. It was good enough for Jaime to get her samples, and good enough for me - these were the first wild quolls I'd seen.


It was only a week ago we got back from Groote Eylandt. What a special place. Wild, and raw, and special. An island of contrasts, between a traditional culture and a modern mining industry. An island with a lot of crocodiles.

It was my first trip up, and Nelle came along. We met the Rangers and friends and family and Gavin and Kerry and the rest of the team and Alex-from-Stanford. We drank tea on the deck at the Ranger station, and packed up everything {but petrol} for a quoll-catching venture to the east side of the island. {Former labmate} Billy was appointed Ranger Coordinator. We learned our first Anindilyakwan words. We entertained Nelle, and learned the value of ABC for Kids downloads {and PhD students}.

A quoll curled up in its very own, custom-made pillowcase | fishing for dinner

We were almost as successful catching fish ... the ocean here teems with them {apparently} but we didn't have much luck. Three fish only made it into our bellies.

That's ok. We had plenty of patience ... and potatoes. 

- written byAmanda Niehaus

CB in DC

At this precise moment, Candice is working at the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. - measuring crustacean claws as part of a study for her PhD.

Or, she might be sleeping. (I can never get those time-differences right ... )

At any rate, this is her lovely little brownstone ...

She's even famous now, in a "The Lost Symbol" kind of way, toiling away in the crustacean collections in Pod 5* at the Museum Support Centre (MSC), a high-security warehouse in the sketchy part of town.

*The same section of the warehouse featured in Dan Brown's book ... in case you haven't read it yet.

And how does Candice spend her days in DC? She's on the bus at 7:30, heading to the Natural History Museum in downtown DC, where she catches the shuttle to the warehouse facility where the crustacean collections are housed.

In to her little lab in the wet collections rooms by 8:30, she starts taking photos of crab claws and measuring the sizes of the shell and legs - for different specimens and different species. It sounds like quick work, but given she has to take 3 measurements of each crab leg (and each crab has 8 measurable legs), she may just be there ... all year.

Not really. But I'm sure that's how she feels sometimes. 10-15 minutes per crab x a warehouse full of crabs = significant porters needed at the end of the day.

Candice measures claws on her own, but has lunch with the other 10-15 researchers who work at the warehouse measuring, cataloging and sorting other types of invertebrates. They all chat and sometimes have science talks, so it's been a great way to meet everyone else.

Then it's back home again, to forget about claws for 12 hours or so.

And why is she doing all this? Candice is looking for tradeoffs between claw size and other morphology among different crustacean species - compensatory mechanisms (like we just learned about with geckoes). We'll talk more about the science after she gets back.

(all the pictures in this post were provided by Candice. Thanks!)

Studying Mosquitofish from the South of France is Not as Glamorous as It Sounds, Part 3

The fish have been collected, the experimental plans organised, and now ... it's time to watch and swim and measure fish.

Robbie and Frank split up the work associated with their experiment - Robbie observed the females' behaviour and Frank measured metabolic rates.  

Here's the behavioural set-up:

And the metabolic set-up:

Frank swam fish in a little glass jar to ramp up their metabolic rates, so he and Robbie could calculate the metabolic scope.

That's all we can say for now, as the data haven't been analysed and the paper has yet to be written. But we wanted to give you some insight into what an eco-physiological experiment entails. It may not be as glamorous as it sounds, but the excitement of discovery and exploring new ideas is what keeps scientists going. The development of an experiment like this one was a lot of fun!

Studying Mosquitofish from the South of France is Not as Glamourous As It Sounds, Part 2

We now return to our story of mosquitofish from murky waters in southern France ... gallantly collected and brought back to the lab, where they were used to address a very important question:
How expensive is pregnancy?
Now, having been pregnant once before, I was willing to share my own experiences with expense in pregnancy: the financial costs associated with becoming addicted to eBay; the social costs of inexplicable moodiness; the energetic costs of lumbering to and from the bathroom; the mental costs manifested in an inability to concentrate/find keys/remember things.

But, apparently fish are different.

Mosquitofish, in fact, are live-bearers that can produce 20 to 70 young in a pregnancy - young that altogether can weigh up to 30-40% of the female's own body weight.

This extra mass and the energy required to produce all these baby fish can substantially increase a female's metabolism - even when she's resting. A higher resting (or basal) metabolism would be expected to limit a female's metabolic scope.

What's metabolic scope? It's the difference between resting and maximum metabolic rates - or the amount by which the body can increase metabolism to deal with high levels of physical activity or stresses. Because maximum metabolic rates are limited by the body's capacity to uptake oxygen and eliminate cell waste, they don't change much. So we expect the metabolic scope of a pregnant mosquitofish to diminish as her resting metabolic rate increases.


That's not all.

Temperature also increases the resting metabolic rate of fish: higher temperatures mean higher resting metabolic rates.

So that's what Robbie and Frank and their French collaborators were keen to look at - how temperature affects the metabolic scope of pregnant mosquitofish.

(to be continued ...)

Studying Mosquitofish from the South of France is Not as Glamourous As It Sounds, Part 1

Recently, Robbie was invited to collaborate with scientists at France's prolific CNRS (Centre National de la Resherche Scientifique). These researchers included Head of the CNRS's Ariege unit, Prof Jean Clobert; and Marie Curie Fellow, Dr Camille Bonneaud. Robbie joined his long-time Australian collaborator and friend - A/Prof Frank Seebacher - in the idyllic location of Moulis* to study the behaviour, physiology, and performance of the invasive mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) relative to their state of pregnancy.

*Let me assure you, that for all the un-glamourousness of the fish- and data-collection, the research station was spectacularly situated.

Imagine working in a well-funded research program in a quaint French village, in a building that adjoins a rushing brook amidst the green-capped mountains of the Pyrenees.
Mag. nif. ique.

But, alas, mosquitofish don't like pristine, bubbling streams. They prefer dank, stagnant places. So when Robbie and Frank took a drive toward the Mediterranean coast, it was looking for swamps. And though there are no pictures to document the collection of the fish, it allegedly involved:
1) wading through reeking swamp mud
2) numerous biting insects
3) a decomposing, floating, probable-mammal the size of a beaver
4) a swift change of clothes before returning to the hire car
And a pink net.

Some hearty beef stew and a few beers upon returning home didn't hurt, either.

Then it was off to the lab to set up the experiments ... (to be continued) ...

Biodiversity Research with Anindilyakwa Rangers

Our team has headed back up to Groote Eylandt (and I'm still here ... sigh ... ), so I thought I might take this opportunity to talk more about our collaboration with the Anindilyakwa people of the island. We have much to learn from each other - but more than that, collaboration between scientists and Indigenous peoples can be a rewarding and effective means of conserving the environment.

Aboriginal Australians have a powerful cultural connection to their environment. It sustains them, physically and spiritually. Conservation of biodiversity is innate, and information about the environment - the organisms that inhabit it, the seasonality of events - have been passed down via narratives and stories for thousands of years. Though this knowledge is more qualitative than quantitative, it represents a long-term picture of the environment that few, if any, scientific studies would provide.

Besides, the ability of Aboriginal trackers and rangers to navigate the bush is incomparable - which facilitates conservation-based studies of wildlife, including the northern quoll. On our trips to Groote Eylandt, our team trains the Indigenous Rangers in scientific methods of capturing, tagging, and 'processing' animals. We talk through research ideas, hypotheses, protocols, and analyses with them. And we absorb their beautiful culture.

We'll be sharing more about our current trip shortly, including photos of some very non-quoll-related fish, and a story about why Billy is currently sitting poolside at the resort, rather than working. (Ahem)